Dance in Flanders
An overview of dance in Flanders (last update: 2022)
American David Hernandez came to Europe in the early 1990s, more specifically to Brussels. He gradually played a role in the oeuvre of very diverse but – without exception – leading choreographers such as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Meg Stuart, Lynda Gaudreau and Alexander Baervoets. They represent very different views on choreography: for example, De Keersmaeker’s explorations of music and movement writing have virtually no similarities with Stuart’s probing of mental and physical states. Characteristic of the oeuvre that David Hernandez himself created alongside these collaborations, often with Austrian Renate Graziadei, is precisely the eagerness with which he examines various registers of dance. Moreover, Hernandez never limited himself to only dance. He often sought explicit collaboration with visual artists and musicians. In his own words, it was his ambition from an early age to become an ‘artist tout court’, regardless of genre. He even tried to be a singer in the US. In addition to dance, he also had training as a studio and jazz musician, and as an opera singer in his home city of Miami. Hernandez himself says that it is primarily about the communication with other artists and spectators, less about the internal consistency of a work. This aim has resulted in a very diverse body of work. Improvisation and experimentation play a major role in this, but it does not have a distinct signature of its own. As a result, this oeuvre was rarely in the spotlight. Yet, in addition to many fascinating experiments, it also contains at least one gem.
Hernandez himself says that it is primarily about the communication with other artists and spectators, less about the internal consistency of a work. This aim has resulted in a very diverse body of work.
Hernandez came to Belgium through Meg Stuart, as a member of the cast of ‘No Longer Readymade’, the second piece that Stuart created in Belgium in 1993. In 1995 he also collaborated on ‘No One is Watching’, Stuart’s third ‘major’ production from 1995. Hernandez, however, went his own way thereafter. He said about this in 2003: “I wanted to become an artist when I was very young. I sought my way in various disciplines such as dance, music or the visual arts, and came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to operate alone. I’ve always involved others in my work, even if it was only asking fellow artists to present work in the foyer at my productions. In fact, I always search for the right context to make the questions that I ask visible to an audience. It is others that categorise this as visual arts or dance.”
This quest led Hernandez for a long period to set up many related improvisation projects involving artists from diverse disciplines. The first – and perhaps also most well-known – project is ‘Crash Landing’, an improvisation project initiated by Meg Stuart, and ‘curated’ with Christine De Smedt and Hernandez in many European cities from 1996 to 1999. Hernandez states about this on his website: ‘Crash Landing is an improvisation initiative organising spontaneous events, planned accidents and improvised actions. It is an ongoing project (that) developed initially from a dialogue and a desire to reconsider our perceptions and experience of improvisation as a performance form. It is a new form for diverse artists, including choreographers, dancers, actors, directors, visual artists and designers, musicians and writers, to exchange ideas and improvise together’.
‘Innersections’, presented in the Beursschouwburg in Brussels in October 2000, can be regarded as a sequel to ‘Crash Landing’. Here Hernandez broadened the idea of an improvised encounter between artists into a happening that occupied the entire theatre complex and did not just present performing arts. ‘Innersections’, a trail through the theatre building along various installations and mini-performances, thus focused on encounters between different disciplines, in the hope of new and unexpected events. One part of this, ‘Performance Hotel’, presented a collage of small performances and sought variations on the classical production in a most interesting way. The most important outcome of this programme, however, was the final improvisation session. The dancers subtly played on each other and on the situation. Here Hernandez proved that the right context and preparation can lead to memorable improvisations that are not inferior to ‘real’ productions.
With the 'Innersections' programme Hernandez proved that the right context and preparation can lead to memorable improvisations that are not inferior to ‘real’ productions.
Hernandez organised several such projects. In 2000, he organised the ‘Filter’ project during the exhibition presented by Craigie Horsfield at Bozar as part of Brussels 2000. In 2004, Hernandez continued his improvisation experiments with ‘Performance Hotel’, an event that again took place at the Beursschouwburg, but on a larger scale. The programme consisted of workshops that mainly appealed to professional dancers, as well as diverse productions and improvisations. Here Hernandez defined his agenda clearly. According to him, an event like ‘Performance Hotel’ offered the opportunity to develop an idea through an exchange of experiences about what dance ‘as dance’ – thus as an autonomous medium – could be. Hernandez said about this: ‘Dance, as an art form, has grown into an independent discipline in recent decades. It no longer needs to fall back on a story or another pretext. You can interrogate movement in a conceptual way, just as visual art can treat the ‘image’. The question, however, is how to develop this, without stumbling over the same questions again and again. Exchanges like this seem to me to be a means to accomplish this. After all, it’s not about finding the definitive truth. It’s about learning from what we build up every day’.
And with that Hernandez places his interest in improvisation – and that is also the decisive difference with Stuart – in a modernist tradition that situates true art at the point where it focuses on its own medium-specific means. In dance, this is the moving body as a fact that is meaningful in itself, regardless of the context that music, scenography or text gives to it. Merce Cunningham gave this view of dance an extremely consistent form in an oeuvre in which ‘every’ movement was possible, and dance became independent of music and scenography. In Belgium, Alexander Baervoets developed this idea in his own way. It is probably no coincidence that Hernandez often collaborated with Baervoets. In any case, improvisation is a form of dance art in which the movement is to a large extent naturally autonomous because it is not determined by a story or the music.
In the work that he developed in addition to his experiments with improvisation, Hernandez was less strict in the doctrine. His first solos from 1999, ‘Edward’ and ‘Fernando (un homme lourd)’ he described as a quest for the unique, that which is most individual in the interpretation of dance. He was interested in ‘the person within the form and the individual human experience’. In ‘Edward’, Hernandez gave form to this aim in a very emphatic, quasi-expressionist way: his ‘true person’ was only visible after literally peeling off many layers around his naked body. Such an explicit theoretical framework was absent in ‘Fernando’, but Hernandez was known as an excellent dancer with a feel for intriguing images. On the other hand, in a work such as ‘Bi-polar’, a duet with Renate Graziadei from 2004, Hernandez seemed to go completely overboard for a quasi-academic purism. For almost three quarters of an hour, both naked dancers made almost identical movements, which not only developed ‘normally’ forward, but also backwards. Especially noteworthy was also the steadfast straight back and the solemnity of the dancers. It was alternately reminiscent of 19th century academicism, of early social-realistic paintings or, indeed, of the purist form language of Cunningham. A score with random electronic sounds enhanced that impression. The strict discipline of this formalism, however, seemed difficult to reconcile with Hernandez’s claim that he was examining the language of the body. As if in this period it was a search for a balance between formal rigour and subjective presence. In the meantime he contributed to the dance vocabulary of important works by Rosas, such as ‘D’un soir un jour’ (2006), ‘Keeping Still’ (2007) and ‘Zeitung’ (2008), and he also appeared in the works among others of Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk. In works like ‘Keeping Still’, however, the abstraction of the dance language does not appear to be an obstacle to a subtle but intense subjective expression.
During the same period, his own work is hardly visible in Belgium. In 2014, with ‘For Movement’s Sake’, Hernandez proved that he had certainly not been idle all those years. The title of the work seems to emphasise the interest of Hernandez in ‘autonomous’ movement. But at first glance, something else is happening here. The piece opens with throbbing organ sounds by Baroque composer Dietrich Buxtehude. Then, a dancer, Colas Lucot, lies down in a foetal position in a stunning ‘trompe-l’oeil’ setting by Saskia Louwaard and Katrijn Baeten. Suddenly a shiver passes through his body. He shrinks, stiffens, jumps up, falls over backwards and swerves away, chasing his wildly swinging leg. It is a wonderful sequence. He seems surprised by violent emotions, but those who watch closely notice that these convulsions are too slow, too precise to be pure mood bursts. They are ‘only’ representations of intense feelings. The emotion is mere appearance – just like the decor. It is the precisely calculated suggestion of great emotion through exactly measured physical strength. Yet there is also a lot of feeling in this calculated representation. Otherwise it would not have such appeal. The image is cold and warm at the same time: calculated yet felt, abstract yet meaningful. When Renate Graziadei and David Hernandez then detach themselves from the image in the background and step onto the performance area, this feeling is confirmed. Both are older, more mature dancers than Lucot. You can see they have lived a hard life. They know what gestures do, how you can give them maximum effect, without giving the slightest impression of being an effect. You see in them especially that wonderful quality that also characterises baroque music: while it can move you to tears, you know, hear and feel that this emotion is being expertly orchestrated. Perfectly dosed power that plays exactly on emotion and provokes it. No wonder then that their dance fits perfectly with the music of Buxtehude.
This is what makes ‘For Movement’s Sake’ such an interesting work. Dance appears here as an autonomous expressive medium, but nevertheless the gestures are by no means a pure abstraction. The way in which the dancers perform the movements grants a certain recognition to the actions: what you see is automatically filled with meanings. These arise for a large part in the spectators’ heads, but they are evoked by what happens physically on stage. Which is precisely what makes good dance so special.
The way in which the dancers perform the movements grants a certain recognition to the actions: what you see is automatically filled with meanings. These arise for a large part in the spectators’ heads, but they are evoked by what happens physically on stage. Which is precisely what makes good dance so special.
In recent years, David Hernandeze has often returned to his first love, music. He was in the cast of Cesena, the production by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker for which Björn Schmelzer of music ensemble ‘Graindelavoix’ co-designed the concept. In this work, dancers and singers are on an equal footing, with their defects and qualities. Shortly thereafter, Hernandez emerged as one of the performers in ‘Trabe dich Theirlein’, Graindelavoix’s production of a wedding mass from 1511 by German polyphonist Heinrich Finck. In the latest choreography by Hernandez, ‘Hullabaloo’ (2015), the collaboration with drummer and percussionist Michel Dubrulle is central. Hernandez rightly describes this work as a dance-concert for six dancers and a drummer.
For many years, David Hernandez has also played an important international role as a dance teacher. From its founding in 1995, he was active each year as an instructor at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels (among others as a teacher of technique, composition and improvisation). At the end of the 1990s, he also developed the PEP (Performance Education Program) training programme in the context of the Klapstuk Festival at STUK in Leuven. He was also a very regular guest as a leader of workshops at the Impulstanz Festival in Vienna.
(the accompanying video clips will later be added to this portrait)
Pieter T’Jonck is a civil engineer-architect and publicist for De Morgen newspaper and diverse publications at home and abroad. He writes about dance, theatre, visual art and architecture. T’Jonck is also an adviser to DasArts in Amsterdam.